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Alfred Firmin Loisy (French: [lwazi]; 28 February 1857 – 1 June 1940) was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian generally credited as a founder of biblical modernism in the Roman Catholic Church.[2] He was a critic of traditional views of the biblical creation, and argued that biblical criticism could be applied to interpreting Sacred Scripture. His theological positions brought him into conflict with the church's conservatives, including Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X. In 1893, he was dismissed as a professor from the Institut Catholique de Paris. His books were condemned by the Vatican,[3] and in 1908 he was excommunicated.[4]

Alfred Loisy
Alfred Loisy.jpg
Alfred Firmin Loisy

(1857-02-28)28 February 1857
Died1 June 1940(1940-06-01) (aged 83)
OccupationPriest, professor, theologian
Years active1879–1931
Known forFounder of biblical nodernism in the Roman Catholic Church
TitleChair of History of Religions in the Collège de France
Academic background
Alma materInstitut Catholique de Paris
Academic work
InstitutionsCollège de France
Notable works(See list below)
InfluencedAlec Vidler[1]

Loisy's most famous observation was that "Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church" ("Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue": Loisy 1902), and he is often taken to have said that with a note of regret (Loisy 1976: 166). But for all his clashes with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Loisy did think that Jesus intended to form some sort of society or community. It was the aping of civil government ("comme celle d'un gouvernement établi"; Loisy 1902: 152) that he doubted Jesus intended.


Born on 28 February 1857 at Ambrières,[2] Loisy was put into the ecclesiastical school of Saint-Dizier at four years old.[5] He decided for the priesthood[6] and was educated within the Catholic system, from 1874 to 1879 at the Grand séminaire de Châlons-en-Champagne; he entered the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1878/1879.[2] Prior to his ordination to the subdiaconate, he had experienced doubts regarding the soundness of the Catholic faith.[5] After an illness he returned to the Institut and was ordained a priest on 29 June 1879. Initially assigned parish work, in 1881 he requested to be reassigned to the Institut to complete his baccalauréat in theology. That autumn he became instructor in Hebrew. He took additional courses in Hebrew with Ernest Renan at the Collège de France. He was also influenced, as to biblical languages and textual criticism, by the Abbé Paulin Martin, and as to a consciousness of the biblical problems and a sense of form by the historical intuition and irony of Abbé Louis Duchesne. He took his theological degree in March 1890, by the oral defense of forty Latin scholastic theses and by a French dissertation, Histoire du canon de l'ancien testament, published as his first book in that year.[6] By the time he took a course at Saint-Sulpice in scriptural interpretation, he was already disillusioned with the church's belief in the virgin birth and resurrection.

Early Biblical criticismEdit

Some of his work appeared in the bi-monthly L'Enseignement biblique, a periodical written throughout and published by himself.[6] In November 1893, Loisy published the last lecture of his course, in which he summed up his position on Biblical criticism in five propositions: the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, the first five chapters of Genesis were not literal history, the New Testament and the Old Testament did not possess equal historical value, there was a development in scriptural doctrine, and Biblical writings were subject to the same limitations as those by other authors of the ancient world.[5] This resulted in Loisy's dismissal from his teaching position. A few days later Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which indirectly condemned Abbé Loisy's and Mgr d'Hulst's position, and rendered the continued publication of consistently critical work so difficult that Loisy himself suppressed his Enseignement at the end of 1893.[6] He was subsequently appointed chaplain to a convent in Neuilly, a post from which he resigned in 1899, to be appointed lecturer at the École pratique des hautes études, a secular academic institution.

Arguments on organized churchEdit

In 1902, he started to pay attention to Adolf von Harnack's Das Wesen des Christentum. Harnack believed that the essence of Christianity was the relationship between individual and God, making an organized church a largely unnecessary creation. Loisy disagreed with the idea that the organized church was unnecessary, but the nature of his disagreement brought him controversy. From 1901 to 1903 he wrote several works that would be condemned by the church. These include La Religion d'Israël, Études évangéliques, L'Évangile et L'Église, Autour d'un petit livre, and Le quatrième Évangile. His 1908 Les Évangiles Synoptiques would cause his excommunication. In his works he argued against Harnack, trying to show that it was necessary and inevitable for the Catholic Church to form as it did. He also argued that God intended this and compared his own ideas on this to those of Cardinal Newman. Although L'Évangile et L'Église in particular was condemned by Cardinal Richard, Pope Leo consistently refused to interfere directly.[7] It was his successor, Pope Pius X who would later condemn these works.

Another controversial thesis of Loisy, developed in La Religion d'Israël, is the distinction between a pre-Moses period, when the Hebrews worshipped the god El, also known by the plural of this name, Elohim, and a later stage, when Yahweh gradually became the only deity of the Jews.[8]

His assertions on Jesus went further than Newman's and caused more controversy. He argued that Harnack had been partly correct that an organized church was created in a way unrelated to any plans by Jesus. Loisy argued that Jesus lacked a conscious understanding that he was consubstantial with God the Father and therefore Jesus did not know how the Catholic Church would "transform". Loisy also argued that, since the articulation of ideas on consubstantiality came from the period surrounding the Council of Nicaea, such notions would have been unknown to and unthinkable by Jesus and his first followers, who saw him largely in Jewish messianic terms. Regardless of who Jesus actually was, he could not have claimed to be what the church taught him to be.

Pope Pius XEdit

Cardinal Sarto became Pope Pius X on 4 August 1903. On 1 October, Loisy published three new books, Autour d'un petit livre, Le Quatrième Évangile and Le Discours sur la Montagne (a fragment of a proposed enlarged commentary on the Synoptic Gospels). Autour consists of seven letters on different topics addressed to church leaders and friends. On 23 December the pope ordered the publication of a decree of the Index of prohibited books, incorporating a decree of the Inquisition, condemning Loisy's Religion d'Israël, L'Évangile et l'Église, Études évangéliques, Autour d'un petit livre and Le Quatrième Évangile. On 12 January 1904 Loisy wrote to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val, that he received the condemnation with respect, and condemned whatever might be reprehensible in his books, whilst reserving the rights of his conscience and his opinions as an historian. Since the Holy See was not satisfied, Loisy sent three further declarations to Rome; the last, dispatched on 17 March, was addressed to the pope himself, and remained unanswered. At the end of March Loisy gave up his lectureship, as he declared, on his own initiative. In April 1907 he returned to his native Lorraine, to Ceffonds (near Montier-en-Der), and to his relatives there.[7]

Condemnation and excommunicationEdit

In July 1907 the Holy Office (after Vatican II renamed as Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a decree, signed by Pius X, entitled Lamentabili sane exitu[9] (or "A Lamentable Departure Indeed"), which formally condemned sixty-five modernist or relativist propositions concerning the nature of the church, revelation, biblical exegesis, the sacraments, and the divinity of Christ. This was followed by the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis (or "Feeding the Lord's Flock"), which characterized modernism as the "synthesis of all heresies". The documents made Loisy realise that there was no hope for reconciliation of his views with the official doctrine of the church. He made a comparative study of the papal documents to show the condemned propositions in his own writings. He also asserted as true various of his earlier New Testament interpretations, which previously he had formulated in conditional form.[10] In his journal he wrote:

Christ has even less importance in my religion than he does in that of the liberal Protestants: for I attach little importance to the revelation of God the Father for which they honor Jesus. If I am anything in religion, it is more pantheist-positivist-humanitarian than Christian.

— Mémoires II, p. 397[11]

His Catholic critics commented that his religious system had as its residue a great society, which he believed to be the continuation of the church of which the past had been so glorious.[12] For many, the attitude of Loisy and his followers was incomprehensible. What troubled modernists was, How can the Church survive?, while for Pius X the question was, How can these men be priests?[13]

This did not deter Loisy from publishing three further books. Les Évangiles synoptiques, two large volumes of 1,009 and 798 pages, appeared in January 1908. This contains a detailed commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, combining the ecclesiastical tradition, modern criticism, the Gospel narrative, and the tradition of the text and the previous commentaries. The commentary gives also a careful translation of the texts. Loisy recognizes two eye-witness documents, as utilized by all three Gospels. He traces a strong Pauline influence, especially in the Gospel of Mark. Yet the great bulk of the sayings remain substantially authentic; if the historicity of certain words and acts is here refused with unusual assurance, that of other sayings and deeds is established with stronger proofs; and the redemptive conception of the Passion and the sacramental interpretation of the Last Supper are found to spring up promptly and legitimately from Christ's work and words. The third book, Simples Réflexions sur le décret Lamentabili et sur l'encyclique Pascendi, 277 pages, was published from Ceffonds a few days after the commentary. Each proposition of the decree is carefully tracked to its probable source, and is often found to modify the latter's meaning. The study of the encyclical concludes: "Time is the great teacher ... we would do wrong to despair either of our civilization or of the Church."[14]

The ecclesiastical authorities were not slow to act. On 14 February 1908 Mgr Amette, archbishop of Paris, prohibited his diocesans to read or defend the two books, which "attack and deny several fundamental dogmas of Christianity," under pain of excommunication.[15] Loisy was excommunicated vitandus on 7 March 1908.[16]

After his excommunication he became a lay intellectual.[17] He was appointed Chair of History of Religions in the Collège de France in 1909 and served there until retiring in 1931. In that post, he continued to develop his philosophy, describing the Christian religion as a humanist system of ethics rather than divine. He also developed his studies of early religions and their influence on Christianity. He never recanted, and died in 1940 in Ceffonds.[18]


  • Loisy, Alfred (1901). La religion d'Israël. Paris: Letouzey et Ané. OCLC 878165012.
  • ——— (1902). Evangile et l'Eglise. Paris: Picard. OCLC 901987393.
  • ——— (1903). Autour d'un petit livre. Paris: Alphonse Picard et fils. OCLC 40018527.
  • ——— (1903). The Gospel and the Church. Translated by Home, Christopher. London: Isbister & Company. OCLC 494580825. - Eng. trans. of Evangile et l'Eglise
  • ——— (1907). Les évangiles synoptiques. Ceffonds: Selbstverl. des Verf. OCLC 180079925.
  • ——— (1910). Religion of Israel. Translated by Galton, Arthur. London: T. Fisher Unwin. OCLC 924251280. - Eng. trans. of La religion d'Israël
  • ——— (1910). Jésus et la tradition évangélique. Paris: E. Nourry. OCLC 1298783.
  • ——— (1911). À propos d'histoire des religions. Paris: E. Nourry. OCLC 6652706.
  • ——— (1912–1913). Choses passées. Paris: L'Union pour la vérité. OCLC 463512513.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  • ——— (1914). Les mystères païens et le mystère chrétien. Paris: E. Nourry. OCLC 1749385.
  • ——— (1924). My Duel with the Vatican: the Autobiography of a Catholic Modernist. Translated by Boynton, Richard Wilson. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company. OCLC 494695455. - Eng. trans. of Choses passées
  • ——— (1933). La naissance du Christianisme. Paris: Emile Nourry. OCLC 958979243.
  • ——— (1936). Les origines du Nouveau Testament. Paris: Librairie Émile Nourry.
  • ——— (1948). The Birth of the Christian Religion. Translated by Jacks, L. P. London: Allen & Unwin. OCLC 254389844. - Eng. trans. of La naissance du Christianisme
  • ——— (1950). The Origins of the New Testament. Translated by Jacks, L. P. London: Allen & Unwin. - Eng. trans. of Les origines du Nouveau Testament

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Beeson, Trevor, ed. (2002). Priests and Prelates: The Daily Telegraph Clerical Obituaries. London: Continuum. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-8264-6337-1.
  2. ^ a b c Wolfgang Weiß (1993). "Loisy, Alfred Firmin". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 190–196. ISBN 3-88309-043-3.
  3. ^ Pope, Hugh. "The Condemnation of Four Works by Abbé Loisy," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIX, 1904.
  4. ^ Reid, George. "Higher Biblical Criticism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908).
  5. ^ a b c Boynton, Richard Wilson. "The Catholic Career of Alfred Loisy", The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1918), pp. 36-73, Cambridge University Press
  6. ^ a b c d von Hügel 1911, p. 926.
  7. ^ a b von Hügel 1911, p. 927.
  8. ^ Loisy, Alfred and Galton, Arthur (2009). The Religion of Israel. BiblioBazaar, pp. 6-7. ISBN 1-115-38922-X
  9. ^ Lamentabili sane exitu
  10. ^ Ratté, p.46.
  11. ^ Cf. Houtin, A.; Sartiaux F. Alfred Loisy, Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre. pp. 121–129.
  12. ^ Ratté, p.120.
  13. ^ Ratté, p.47.
  14. ^ von Hügel 1911, pp. 927-928.
  15. ^ von Hügel 1911, p. 928.
  16. ^ Encyclopedia Americana (Volume 17: 1969), pgs 707-708. Article by Francis J. Hemelt of The Catholic University of America
  17. ^ Ratté, p.123.
  18. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Alfred Firmin Loisy". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 4 March 2017.


  • Arnold, Claus/Losito, Giacomo, La censure d'Alfred Loisy (1903). Les documents des Congrégations de l´Index et du Saint Office. (Fontes Archivi Sancti Officii Romani 4). Vatikan City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009.
  • Ilaria Biagioli, François Laplanche, Claude Langlois (eds), Autour d'un petit livre. Alfred Loisy cent ans après, Paris, Brepols, 2007.
  • Boynton, Richard Wilson. "The Catholic Career of Alfred Loisy," The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. XI, 1918.
  • "KIRCHENLEXIKON" ("Church Dictionary", with "LOISY, Alfred Firmin"),, 2006-03-23, webpage: Bautz-German-Loisy.
  • Houtin, A.; Sartiaux F. (1960). Alfred Loisy, Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre. Paris.
  • Loisy, Alfred. L'Évangile et l'Église (Paris: Picard, 1902) ET The Gospel and the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976)
  • Mueller, Andreas Uwe, Christlicher Glaube und historische Kritik. Maurice Blondel und Alfred Loisy im Ringen um das Verhaeltnis von Schrift und Tradition (Freiburg, Herder, 2008).
  • Ratté, John (1968). "Alfred Loisy". Three Modernists. Alfred Loisy, William L. Sullivan, George Tyrrell. London-Sydney: Sheed & Ward. pp. 45–141. ISBN 0-7220-0536-9.
  • Vieban, A. "A Critical Valuation of Loisy's Theories," The Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. XL, 1909.
  • Michelle Charles; Chijen James Wu; Echol Lee Nix, Jr. Wesley Wildman; Derek Michaud (eds.). "Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1959)". Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology. Wesley Wildman. Retrieved 4 March 2017.
  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainvon Hügel, Friedrich (1911). "Loisy, Alfred Firmin". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 926–928. This includes an extensive bibliography.